The Relationship Problem You're Probably Overlooking

We have often heard that the most common things married couples fight about are money and children. But what if I told you that in my 30+ years as a practicing psychotherapist, I noticed another major issue that was rarely considered by couples before marriage?

When couples love each other, they think they'll move in together and agree on basic living arrangements. Unfortunately, it's easier to love someone than to live with them.

One major cause of conflict that's often overlooked is a couple's agreement, or disagreement, on the use of TIME.

To illustrate the problem, here's a case history from my files.

Shelly and Dale looked haggard. After 18 months of marriage, the honeymoon had worn off and things weren't going well. They began with the presenting problem.

Dale: "I want to start a family. We'd agreed we'd have children right away and now, she doesn't want any."

Shelly: "I want children, but not with Dale. He's totally selfish, and I'd be raising kids alone. Either things change a lot or I want a divorce, and I never thought I'd say those words because I love Dale, but I can't take it anymore."

As counseling progressed, it became clear that time distribution was a big problem between them. We discussed what I call The Five Main Types of Relationship Time: 1) Individual time, 2) Relationship time, 3) Parenting time, 4) Work time and 5) Family of Origin time.

1. Individual time: This is time spent alone or in one's own world. Activities like grooming, watching TV, doing hobbies, reading, praying, hiking or playing basketball with friends, listening to music, playing video games and "being alone to clear my head" are considered individual time. Some people like being alone. They feel less stressed when they're alone and need much personal time. Other people hate being alone.

2. Relationship time: This is quality time spent in a primary relationship: talking together, loving together and playing together. Parallel play does not count. Me watching TV and you on the exercise bike is not relationship time. Some people crave conversations and attention from their mates and others prefer just having their lover around the house. It's important that couples match in this requirement or one mate will feel constantly deprived and the other constantly pulled at for affection.

3. Parenting time: Time spent caring for children: talking, hugging, feeding, cleaning, teaching, doctor's visits, playing together, driving, sports, recitals, etc.

4. Work time: Time spent in work that benefits the couple: paid work and housework. Volunteer work is a hobby and counts as individual time. Some people's work-time spreads like an inkblot over their time at home. Dad crunching numbers on his computer while sitting on the couch with the kids is not family time, it's work time.

5. Family of Origin time: Time spent with the families of origin. Some couples speak daily to their parents, some meet every Sunday for supper, some meet only on Thanksgiving, some not at all. Couples should agree on their patterns of family interactions before marriage or it may be a problem.

Over a person's life span, the amount of time required for the different activities varies. A child lives almost totally in individual time since she is learning and forming her persona. Beginning a career may demand a great deal of Work Time and there's little time left for other things. Ailing parents may require more Family of Origin Time.

Shelly and Dale's first therapeutic assignment was to chart the hours they each spent daily on the five time divisions and report back at our next session.

The following week, Dale went first.

1. Dale's Individual time: One hour morning grooming; two and a half hours at the gym; two hours thirty minutes reading newspapers, playing video games, watching sports; fifteen minutes preparing for sleep and eight hours sleeping. Dale, an only child, insisted on preserving his personal time saying, "I'm not giving up my life to be married."

He was surprised that he "needed" 14+ hours of individual time per day. When he added the daily 10 hours of Work Time (commuting and job), he saw he had no time for a relationship during the week. On weekends, his individual time demanded six hours daily (gym, newspapers and news shows, crossword puzzle, etc.)

Sherry said, "See how selfish he is?" and went next.

Individual time for Sherry: an hour morning grooming, a half hour preparing for bed and an hour reading. She watched TV while making dinner and doing household chores. On the total weekend she went personal shopping for three hours, to the gym two hours, read papers and magazines for three hours. She longed for more relationship time.

2. Relationship time: This was the crux of the problem. Dale thought their time together on weekends, after he read the papers, watched Sunday newscasts and went to the gym was enough. He said Shelly demanded too much, and he'd be happy with three hours of relationship time a week. Shelly felt lonely and wanted more relationship time both on weekdays and on the weekend. She wanted at least 20 hours of relationship time. She felt unloved because Dale had "plenty of time for himself, but no time for us."

3. Parenting Time: Since they had no children the couple had no conflict in this area, however, Dale had been pressing for a child. After reading his individual time requirements, he saw he had no time to spend with a child. "I don't have time for a puppy, much less a child," he realized. Shelly said, "Or a wife."

4. Work time: Both Shelly and Dale spent 50 hours a week in work and commute time. After work, Sherry spent three hours daily on house chores, grocery shopping, laundry, cooking etc. They had a cleaning service. Dale spent no weekday time, and an hour weekend time, on house chores.

5. Family of Origin Time: No conflict because their families of origin both lived on the East coast.

During individual therapy sessions, Dave understood that he feared being "eaten alive" by a relationship if he "gave up" his pre-marriage individual activities. This belief was learned from his narcissistic, thrice-married mother. He was willing to change because he loved Shelly and wanted his marriage to work.

Shelly wanted more relationship time and more help with household chores. She wanted to feel more important to Dale than his gym and personal interests.

Dale's first step was to keep all his individual activities, but cut them by 20 percent. Later, he cut out video games entirely, halved newspaper time and cut TV time. He expanded relationship time and began walking with Shelly, which enabled him to reduce his gym time, etc.

During mutual sessions, Shelly and Dale slowly and thoughtfully negotiated a time schedule that satisfied both of them. I suggested they join an ongoing group of young marrieds who discussed issues and supported each other with mutual suggestions.

Two years after the conclusion of therapy they sent me a birth announcement of their daughter and wrote how happy they were. They had ironed out a ripple in time.

Life is a constant balancing act. And while we can't always know how our time will be demanded, we can certainly plan ahead to make time for the things that are most important.